Digital Fidelity to the Facts (Not So Much)

American exceptionalism or not, the events in Washington D.C. have reached far and wide into both the Analog and Digital worlds. The offices of The Analog Underground are feeling a little somber contemplating what was lost (Life and illusions) and also what was not (aspiration and potential). While we’ve got thoughts on transcendence and unity and doing one’s duty, we’ll leave those to our sister publication, The Wondering Pathfinder and be good digerati, confining our scope to the Analog/Digital aspects of events. 

The realm of thinking on free speech and its rational limits has always been fertile ground for Analog/Digital philosophers, for what is speech but the original discrete encoding mechanism for the continuous reality of the world around us. We have been editing what we see, hear, feel, taste and smell into more consumable chunks called words for as long as there are records of, well, us. And from day one, those words, always one or more steps away from actual reality, have probably tempted us to try and improve on the reality we encountered. Og probably inflated the size of that Mammoth that got away. 

Like everything else sprung from the Analog world, our words exist on a continuum from dry facts and reportage (not to be confused with the current sorry state of journalism) all the way across to outright intentional falsehoods generated for one purpose or another (some nefarious, others not, at least not intentionally). Somewhere along that range are all our utopian visions, all the statistics we so blindly believe in, and every AI generated probability along with all the other kinds of words we create to surround us, guide us, and deceive us. 

Digital engineers would do well to examine this history of our words for all the transcendent glories and sniveling, bilge rat prevarications. All of that, the good, the bad and the merely ugly is the result of the tool being at least one step removed from the thing it is supposed to represent. Our latest foray into representation is the digital encoding of reality for mastication by the boxes. Nothing about it makes it immune from the same short falls of representation that language reveals. A quick example is the repeated Claude Rains moment when we are shocked, SHOCKED! to find out that our AI bots have encoded our own biases. 

We are pursuing the Digital encoding exercise at an unprecedented scale. This is worrisome for a world so new to this realm. At least with words we have several millennia of experience. With Digital, we’re more than a little like a toddler sat down at the controls of a rumbling D11 Cat bulldozer. Even if we could reach the controls, we probably wouldn’t know what to do with them.

We can’t agree on what is gained and what is lost in the editing exercise from Analog to Digital. We haven’t thought through/lived through all the implications of pouring our smallest whims and wider instincts into Digital. It speeds up and amplifies everything it ingests, connections to reality be damned (if acknowledged at all). Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO, whines that he doesn’t want to be an arbitrator of truth when it’s inconvenient to the rapid expansion of the commodity (us and our posts) that he sells to advertisers, but rushes in when the commodity tries to manipulate reality on its own behalf. Some time we’ll tell you about our assignment of crossing gender lines in Facebook, or the one on location fluidity, or an on-going experiment with creative dates (no, nobody in the offices was born on July 4). Facebook has regularly put-on school marm mode with us decrying our “lack of transparency” which is the “foundation of the Facebook Community”. Sigh. Despite all the trappings, it’s not a community. It’s a factory designed to generate eyes for advertisers. So don’t go wrapping yourself in the moral philosopher’s purple, Zuck. It doesn’t play very well and conflating censorship with fidelity to facts is a poor dodge.

Perhaps a more apt analogy for our digital maturity would be putting toddlers at the controls of an M1 Abrams army tank.

Last week’s events are another case study in our evolving understanding of the glories and limits of language and the Analog/Digital interface. What happens in Digital clearly does not stay in Digital. Truth is, it never did.  There just weren’t enough of us over there to manifest so explicitly in the Analog world. These days, everyone has at least a little technology in their lives even if it’s only existing in the various databases of government and business. And a little or a lot, it’s the nature of Digital that it’s at least one step removed from the kinds of corrections inherent in the Analog world. Bad as it is, getting hit by identity theft is not the same as getting hit by a bus. 

Like it or not, when we put our hands to Digital, we are accountable for providing something similar to that natural governance that nature and physics provide in the Analog world. At the very least we have to be able to identify those moments when the fidelity to facts of our various ideologies falls below a sustainable line. We are, all of us together and each of us individually, necessary arbiters of the truth. Digital may give you a pass on that speeding bus of reality, but Analog bats last. We’re going to have to grow up fast Digitally and that’s not going to be any easier than growing up in the Analog world. 

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